No matter what obstacles the dance world has had to overcome during the nightmare that is 2020, it seems the people who populate it remain as stoical, resilient and determined to succeed as ever. Choreographer David Dawson has brought together a team of artists, who have each given their services free of charge, in a specially curated online series of short dance films which collectively make up 7 Portraits of Solitude. Dawson is responsible for the concept, the choreography and direction – and if this is his first foray into dance film making, then we have lots to look forward to in the future. The premise is to raise awareness (and funds) of the plight of stage industries that, ‘risk losing a generation of talent’ if the situation is not properly addressed.
Using seven dancers from the Semperoper Ballett in Dresden, seven different composers, choreographic assistants Rebecca Gladstone and Raphael Coumes-Marquet, with cinematography and editing by another company dancer, Thomas Bieszka, costumes by former Semperoper dancer turned designer Yumiko Takeshima and a production team, Gj Smeenk and Jana Posth – Dawson has managed to come up with one of the best films (and there have been many) during this enforced absence of live theatre and it’s all done in with succinct, highly charged, emotional depth.
It helps of course, that the dancers are among some of the best and most interesting on the international stage (or off stage as is the necessity of the moment) and that their individuality is so apparent in these portraits. But while that perhaps seems an unsurprising observation, it is the way in which their qualities are depicted that completely engages the viewer.
Each solo is just a few minutes long, each in a different venue or space and each with a different composer. And as a common theme, they express a yearning, an almost desperate urge to tell us what they feel through the movements they embody. There is an ever present air of melancholia, deprivation and yet the choreography itself is remarkably free of constraints.
We have come to know Dawson’s vocabulary and something that can never fail to inspire admiration is his ability to conjure steps that lead mellifluously into long, seamless sentences. In much the same way as Rudolf Steiner built his Goetheanum and surrounding houses in Dornach without a single sharp corner or right angle, creating a harmonious and spiritual space, so I think Dawson is the architect of a dance language that offers a similarly organic movement style. The torso extends to extremes, allowing the back to express as much as the face. The arms achieve a port de bras of significance whether in front or behind the shoulders. Most alluring is that each of his subjects is able to portray a whole gamut of emotions through a simple glance at the lens, the angle of the head, the drama and thrust of the body. The films inevitably come to an end but one has the impression that the dancers will carry on regardless, without the watchful eye of the camera.
Sangeun Lee is the first, to Max Richter’s Embers, and filmed at the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin. The former airport is now a public park – great choice of location – and Lee imbues a sense of wishing to escape and soar in the broad strokes of her movements. Her natural fragility notwithstanding, the pliancy and strength she finds persuades the viewer that as she fades away along the runway, she will take flight and head off towards the sun.
Jón Vallejo appears in a U-bahn (tube) station in Berlin – an unlikely platform for dance, but it works fantastically well. To Peter Gregson’s Inside, Alone, his solo is high on energy, urgency as he runs at the beginning and later disappears at speed up the steps at the end. In between, the arcs and power of his body skim across the floor, turning, swirling, his athleticism engulfing the space.
Aidan Gibson is filmed in what looks like a disused hall with a small stage at one end. Credited as the Grüne Baum Großdorf, the pillars that flank the walls look as if they could be art nouveau. She dances to Ernetti from Digressions by Greg Haines and it is now that we are drawn to focus on the fact that Dawson’s choreography sweeps along like spirograph. As Gibson is filmed from above, her circling, unfurling limbs and pointed feet leave perfect spherical shapes on the dusty floor. She melts into her spheres with elegant poise.
Portrait 4 shows Alejandro Martínez outside the Congress Halle, Dresden. To Szymon Brzóska’s Septem for Piano: V.Flo, he projects something of an avian creature wanting to spread his wings. Once again, the location lends itself so well to the assumption that the dancer is striving to have his ‘voice’ heard, to find the freedom in performing once again. Martínez is glorious in his expansive movements – compelling as the horizon beckons.
Courtney Richardson, great artist that she is, delivers her own plea to express herself, outside the Garnisonkirche St. Martin in Dresden. Within the confines of the tiled porch way and entrance, she still manages to somehow break free. This must resonate with hosts of dancers across the globe as lockdown and restrictions have severely affected the sense of having space. Her neck and arms tell many stories to Gavin Bryars’ New York – the final moments speak volumes, as she brings her wrist up to her chest, head thrown back, her face – curious, longing.
Portrait 6 is of Houston Thomas in a vast space indoors at the Messe in Dresden. Dancing to Robin Rimbaud-Scanner’s Dead Letter Office – it is difficult not to be hypnotised by his extraordinary, piercing and beautiful eyes. Indeed, his performance is immersive, mesmerising, vital. As he comes toward the camera at the close, with his hand raised, it almost requires an involuntary response of raising your own hand to his.
The final portrait is of Alice Mariani, on stage in the magnificent Semperoper with an empty auditorium, dancing to Alex Baranowski’s Immortal, Universal. Perhaps this is the most poignant of all, filled with pathos and the aching need to return to the space where all the magic happened before the advent of COVID-19. She is exquisite in her softness – her sadness palpable as she takes a reverence to the numerous rows of seats without incumbents.
In an utterly cruel twist of fate, the Semperoper Ballett should have been back on stage last week for the start of their season, but for the wretched virus. In the meantime, these visceral portraits are truly works of art, beautifully presented, filmed and executed. Without doubt, the dance will go on – in whatever form necessary. People involved in the arts in any capacity are not quitters – they will find a way through and still produce the goods. Watch, enjoy and indulge.
Article By Deborah Weiss